As media around the globe chronicled the fight with al-Qaeda-linked militants in the North African nation of Mali, few watched with more interest than PSU history professor Steve Harmon.

Steve Harmon

Harmon, an expert on terrorism in North Africa and the Middle East, spent the past fall semester in Mali doing research for a book on unrest in that part of the world.

“Mali is right at the center of what I’m researching,” Harmon said.

Harmon returned to the U.S. on Jan. 1 from a four-month field research trip to Mali, just days before militants launched unexpected attacks on government-controlled cities in southern Mali. France, fearing a collapse of the Malian government, intervened.

Harmon, who has made five trips to Mali over the years, said the past year has been an especially difficult one for the country.

Mali’s weakened democratic government, in power since 1992, fell in early 2012 and a military junta took control. Subsequently, the junta found itself battling groups of radical Islamists who soon controlled the mostly desert northern half of the country.

Harmon said complex power struggles in a land so far away from the U.S. may seem unimportant to Americans worried about the economy and other issues at home. But what happens in Mali, he said, can have a direct impact on the U.S.

“Uncontrolled spaces can become havens for terrorists, where they are free to plan and launch attacks around the world,” Harmon said, noting that the World Trade Center attacks came out of similar uncontrolled spaces in Afghanistan.

Mud and thatch dwellings are common in Mali and much of the economy is based on agriculture and craftsmanship.

Beyond the political implications of the struggle in Mali, Harmon said, there is a human toll the struggle takes. For example, he said, the radicals brought with them a harsh interpretation of Sharia law. Floggings, amputations and executions were carried out for offenses ranging from smoking or listening to the wrong music to infidelity.

Because of his many visits to Mali, Harmon is especially touched by the suffering of its people.

“The people are very welcoming and very kind to foreigners,” Harmon said.

They are 95 percent Muslim, he said, but they are moderate and resentful of the radical actions taken in the north.

“They want what most of us want,” Harmon said, “education for their children, a chance to make a living.” •